Build me up, Buttercup
Retiring down South in Sonoma
The vineyard of petit verdot was already in the ground when John and Julie bought their buttercup home.
Drive by Julie and John Shirley’s retirement home, and you just might tip your hat or nod, “Afternoon, Ma’am.” That’s because she’s a Southern belle of a Sonoma beauty—buttercup yellow and sugarcane white, with a wraparound porch great for fanning yourself over a pitcher of iced tea if it weren’t so perfect for toasting a glass of homegrown red from the adjoining petit verdot vineyard.
It all began the day Julie Shirley, eyeballing real estate along Carriger Road, spied an unfinished house with no “for sale” sign and intuitively knew it would someday be home. “It was so charming. A cheerful yellow and white house, yet it looked so sad.”
The developer of the three-and-a-half-acre estate went belly-up before the house was quite finished, but not before planting a vineyard and building nearly 1,000 linear feet of bucolic rock walls. The bank had repossessed the property, and how fitting that John Shirley happens to be an attorney with extensive experience in real estate law. John and Julie swooped in, made a deal and snagged their dream house just in time to choose some of their own finishing touches.
They also discovered the style of their new antebellum sweetie was so officially Southern that the twin of (and inspiration for) their home once graced the cover of Southern Living magazine. The plans had been offered for sale, and apparently the original developer had purchased them.
They moved in in January 2004 and barely miss Moraga, where they raised their family and lived for more than 20 years.
Sonoma Valley enchanted John and Julie long before they poked around for a retirement home, having frolicked with friends at the annual Heart of the Valley Wine Tour for six years running. Even though they spent birthdays and anniversaries at Auberge du Soleil in Napa, it was the Valley of the Moon that ignited their fantasy-turned-reality—J&J Vineyards, short for John and Julie. Now they produce five tons of petit verdot, the juicy gems of which Peter Wellington blends with cabernet and merlot to make his premier offering, Wellington Victory. The Shirleys are now card-carrying members of Sonoma Valley Vintners & Growers Alliance and can see their grapes flourishing from almost every window of their two-story abode.
The true heart of their home beats in the living room, alight with the soaring expanse of a 20-foot ceiling and warmed by a two-sided fireplace, whose column of rough-hewn river rock reaches all the way up. Opposite the hearth glows the dark cherry wood of floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, complete with soffited lighting and an attached ladder. John and Julie’s old home included a library, so they hired local cabinetmaker Terry Holleman to create a safe harbor for their extensive book collection. Framing all their favorite works, the shelves are perhaps the home’s most personal touch, worthy of the pride they feel for the exquisite craftsmanship. “It’s exactly what I wanted,” John says.
Rich with sentiment, John and Julie’s living room is furnished almost entirely with the reupholstered antiques that belonged to John’s mother, Dolores, with additional pieces interwoven here and there throughout the home.
The living room leads to a family room brightened by white beadboard wainscoting and windows, windows, windows. These true-light Pellas flood every room in the house with signature airiness, and they reportedly added more than $100,000 to the building costs. (Now they cost a pretty penny to clean when the window washer comes round.)
Adjacent to the family room, a snug kitchen gleams with stainless steel appliances, perfectly sized for the “meals for two” Julie enjoys whipping up. What’s the sense of swimming around in restaurant-sized caverns, anyway, when there’s only a pair of them? “It’s a little hard when there are 25 of us here at Christmas dinner,” Julie admits, but where space really matters is at her hefty dining table, which always accommodates everyone and serves a feast of memories year after year.
Also downstairs is their master bedroom, light as summertime with its yellow-on-pale-yellow stripes. A deep, jetted tub in the adjoining bath sits encased by glassed-in vistas, beckoning them to hop in and soak up the radiance of the property’s ancient oak trees.
Upstairs are two bedrooms and a large sitting area that opens onto an expansive porch with views of the Mayacamas. This floor welcomes their four adult children, Erin, Jack, Kevin and Allie, and one grandson, two-year-old Jake. They all live in San Francisco, so it’s easy to scoot up for a visit. “They love to come and drink our wine,” Julie says.
John’s a self-admitted “car nut,” and he drives a 2006 Aston Martin DB9 Volante when he’s not bopping around in his pickup truck. His true toys, though, are the 1958 Alfa Romeo Giulietta and 1954 Austin Healey Le Mans that he races at places like Infineon and Laguna Seca five or six times a year. (He and Julie also drove the 1,000-mile California Mille last year.) His vintage wheels are housed in the lower level of their carriage house, and the floor above is John’s massive office, complete with a pool table. Below the garage a huge concrete wine cellar—currently empty—waits for its final incarnation to match the plans drawn in the Shirleys’ collective imagination; it’s only a matter of time until bottles and barrels line the walls.
One might remark that the Shirley home doesn’t really look like it belongs in Sonoma, but then, what constitutes a Sonoma house? With bungalows, Craftsman and Mediterranean-style homes all over the east side, California ranches and cottages sprawling across the Valley, contemporary structures and occasional Tuscan knockoffs of the nouveau riche, Sonoma style runs the gamut.
While the architecture may not speak of Sonoma, the land it sits on epitomizes Wine Country living in the most exquisite sense, from the vineyards and oaks to lush lawns and a bocce ball court. A heavenly rose garden froths with over 50 bushes that John and his sons planted, and there are four raised beds where they grow organic vegetables. But the outdoor feature that truly dazzles is the pool. Situated at the back of the house overlooking the petit verdot, an 18-by-36-foot aquamarine heaven inspires one to dive in as soon as the mercury hits 80 degrees and not emerge until the rainy season.
Julie’s blonde with morning-glory-blue eyes, and she’s as blithe as her sunlit yellow home, while John is as classic and impressive as his vintage cars. They’ve made fast friends here, which isn’t surprising given Julie’s warmth and John’s enthusiasm for seemingly everything (well, OK, especially wine and cars).
When John was a kid, his family used to travel to Sonoma for Christmas dinner at a cousin’s house, located on the corner of Second Street East and France Street. Much to his mother’s dismay, John’s father always let him drive the car up—even before he had a license—because to San Franciscans, this was truly “way out in the country.” Now John and Julie live “way out in the country” in one of the sweetest retreats west of the Mississippi, and they own a license to living the good life.
From the Summer 2008 issue of SONOMA